Sunday, November 29, 2020

Looking for a Word

“The crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God ...”

How did these four words become so commonplace among Christians? How did we come to take them so completely for granted?

It’s Sunday morning, so the family piles into the aging Camry five minutes late, maybe ten. Dad is distracted by problems at the office and the condition of the lawn, which he meant to get to Saturday afternoon but didn’t. Mom is simmering about Junior, whose hair is its usual mess, and who didn’t wear the freshly pressed shirt she put out for him last night, but there wasn’t time to make him change before meeting. Junior is rhapsodizing about a blonde in his math class, while Sis obsesses over the number of calories in the cream cheese bagel Mom guilted her into eating for breakfast, half of which she smuggled into the garbage in a napkin. Meanwhile, the baby just spat her soother under the car seat again. Everyone is used to the waves of ambient unhappiness she emits most of her waking life, but this morning she’s cranked the volume up to eleven.

We’re off to hear God’s word.

The Word of God

Say what?

It’s amazing how easily we get comfortable with the idea that God has anything to say to us at all, let alone that our fellow human beings may be inestimably privileged to give voice to it for him. Assuming the speaker at the Family Bible Hour is not a complete bore, and if we can somehow bring ourselves to set aside our own incredibly important concerns and cares, perhaps we can agree together to grant the Almighty thirty-five or forty minutes of our precious time to make his point to us, out of which, if we are very honest, we may pay concerted attention for five. If he’s lucky, that is.

Where do we get off with that attitude?

God owes nothing whatsoever to humanity. In and of ourselves, we are estranged from him, indifferent to him, ungrateful to him, utterly unlike him and in many cases even actively hostile toward him. He is under no obligation to speak to his creatures or to correct a situation for which we are entirely to blame. He is not accountable to us in any way at all. In the end, if we go on our merry way uncorrected by God’s truth, who stands to lose the most? We do, and everyone around us. Should God be obliged to reach out from heaven and graciously untangle the webs we weave for ourselves and for each other? Why exactly would that be?

And yet he has given us his word. The word of God.


A Crowd with Inferior Motivations

Not everyone who came to see Jesus “pressed in on him to hear the word of God”. The crowd described in Luke 5 was exceptional. They were so many and so eager to hear what God had to tell them that Jesus had to get into a boat and put out a few yards into the lake to get enough space to be seen and heard by the whole crowd.

Other times, the crowds would gather with less honorable motives. Some were looking for a free lunch. Some were hoping to catch a glimpse of a spectacular event they could gossip about to their friends. Others were hoping to see Jesus make a mistake so they could dismiss what he was saying, or do worse to him. Still others were so desperate for political leadership that they were prepared to draft a leader forcibly if necessary.

This crowd came to hear God speak.

None of these first century motivations may reasonably be ascribed to the rapidly shrinking number of Christians who drag themselves out of bed on a Sunday morning to meet with their fellow believers. The coffee is probably better at Tim Horton’s or McDonald’s, assuming your church is even allowed to serve coffee anymore. The chances of seeing a healing or someone relieved from demon possession are sub-zero. Mistakes are so common from the platform that we could compile a book of the more entertaining ones, but since no preacher I have ever heard claims to be the Son of God, excoriating him for a word out of place now and then would be a petty exercise. And political leadership? Some of the most boneheaded public pronouncements made in the weeks leading up to the U.S. election earlier this month came from the mouths of well-known evangelicals. Good luck finding savvy politicians in church.

Trembling at the Word

So, assuming you are one of the faithful few heading out this morning to gather with the saints for the purpose of hearing a preacher do his thing, why do you bother? Force of habit? Nothing better to do? Guilt? The social fix? Other people’s expectations? Some sense of the importance of setting a good example for your family?

I hope we are going out of a desire to hear the word of God. A few bad experiences (or many) may have convinced us that’s a long shot, and I will concede that far too many preachers today offer their congregants half-baked opinions, clich├ęs, spiritual pablum and cute anecdotes as a hopelessly inadequate substitute. Moreover, it is certainly true that God may speak to individual Christians through Bible study and prayer, a godly book, digital message or YouTube video. You could in theory stay home and hear God’s word.

But in the event the Lord wants to deliver a message we all need to hear, and supposing the Head of the Church wishes to address his Body either in whole or in part, where would he be more likely to do it than where his people are pressing to hear his word? After all, this is the very thing he promised Isaiah:
“But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.”
Maybe those people don’t go to church anymore, but I must confess that I don’t know where else to look for them.


  1. There's never only one reason to go to Church. The flesh has many reasons and the spirit has its own. "Whenever I want to do good, evil is right there with me." Romans 7:21 People have to be reminded that it is great to be "on fire," but it's better in the long term to be disciplined. They get discouraged when they don't understand where the discipline comes from and they envy the enthusiastic.